For Allison Wolf, the 2018 California wildfire season marked a turning point. During that record-breaking year, I started asking a lot of questions.
“We were in the middle of the 2018 wildfire season, with Carr Fire, and what I thought at the time was the worst season ever,” Wolff said. “I started asking lots and lots of people — the climate scientists I’ve worked with, land managers, utility leaders, insurance leaders — why is this happening so catastrophically? What will the future look like? And what can be done about it?”
Among those discussions has arisen Vibrant Planet, a public-benefit startup developing Land Tender. It’s basically SaaS for forest management, something the company calls a “forest restoration operating system.”
As wildfire season begins again in the American West, Vibrant Planet tells TechCrunch exclusively that it has raised an initial $17 million round led by the Ecosystem Integration Fund and the Jeremy & Hannelore Grantham Environmental Fund.
“I quickly realized this was a climate issue,” Wolf said. “Land management is a big part of the problem, of course, because even if the climate remains stable, we will still lose a lot of forests. Climate change is definitely exacerbating it for a long time,” she said.
“We just need to do this – we need to restore forests faster, and they may be able to achieve that through climate change, and they may help us survive climate change.”
Also on the tour were Valia Ventures and Earthshot Ventures – backed by Laurene Powell Jobs and Tom Steyer – Cisco and Halogen Ventures. Previous backers of the startup include Meta’s chief product officer Chris Cox, and former Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt, who later joined Vibrant Planet in the same position.
Vibrant Planet provides access to a range of data sets, with its centerpiece being a lidar map of California. Lidar is incredibly useful when it comes to mapping 3D forests and determining their fire hazards, but it’s not a panacea. Dense forests, which often present the greatest fire risk, are difficult to map from top to bottom, so the team trained a machine-learning algorithm to fill in any gaps.
And because lidar is expensive, the company is using another AI tool to constantly update it with cheaper satellite imagery. (All of this comes with the caveat that data generated by AI tools is speculative – you can’t “optimize” it with 100% accuracy, no matter what police procedures say.)
The company sells Land Tender via per-seat licenses primarily aimed at land managers who work for federal agencies — think the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, etc. — as well as stakeholders who have interests in the land they oversee. These stakeholders may include fire chiefs, land conservation groups, or NGOs that advocate for wildlife conservation.
The platform, which focuses on wildfire-resilient forests, will be available to users across California by the end of the year and in other western states as demand materializes throughout the next year. The company said it could add additional regions or countries depending on the availability of LiDAR data.
Within the platform, users can prioritize their goals, such as fire risk, conservation of endangered species, or water quality. They can then perform analyzes to determine how different landscape treatments—for example, a series of chevron-patterned cuts, or a specific regimen of prescribed burns—impact their priorities.
At $3,500 per seat, Vibrant Planet’s offering ranges from competing with the annual pricing of ArcGIS, the industry’s standard geographic information system, to the least expensive depending on the types of ArcGIS extensions the group may select to meet their needs. However, the main difference is that the company includes a bunch of data that ArcGIS users will have to find themselves, as well as what looks like some clever collaboration tools. For some groups, it may not add value, but for others, it will save a lot of time.
Land Tender grew out of Vibrant Planet Consulting for the North Yuba Forest Partnership, a group of nine organizations that were developing a forest management plan for a 275,000-acre watershed northwest of Lake Tahoe. The startup then tested an early version with Truckee River Watershed Council, which is currently planning resilience projects across the 330,000-acre Middle Truckee River watershed that feeds Lake Tahoe. By August, Vibrant Planet said Land Tender will be used throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin and Tahoe National Forest.
The second part of the startup’s business model is providing data and analytics to develop carbon credits – also known as carbon offsets – but Wolff wasn’t ready to reveal much about that just yet.
Vibrant Planet has recruited heavily from the ranks of universities and government agencies, putting together a team of about a dozen environmental, forestry, and geospatial experts. It has also drawn in engineering talent from a handful of major tech companies, including Facebook, Lyft and Netflix.
For Wolf, this was all part of the plan. “I’ve had a lot of people on my listening tour say to me, ‘How do we rally people in Silicon Valley?'” How do we get the best tech people to help sell Facebook ads that focus on building climate solutions? “
At the time, fires were burning all over the West, so the issue was on the top of many people’s minds. Plus, having Hunt on board with his decades of experience didn’t hurt when it came time to promote them. “It was very easy to recruit the best talent in Silicon Valley,” Wolf said.